SSR #14: “Bart Gets an ‘F'”


Introduction:

Ladies and gentleman, it is time to take the long-awaited dive into Season 2 of The Simpsons for this retrospective. It’s been over a year since I took a look at the final episode of Season 1, and I do not feel like making you guys or myself wait any longer. Season 2 is a very iconic season for me; mainly because it was the season where I first started watching the show and are the earliest episodes I remember watching as a kid, aside from the Christmas special. My parents had a video cassette that had a number of Season 2 episodes on it; from Dancin’ Homer, Dead Putting Society, Bart the Daredevil…lots of episodes that I have pretty much grown up with and episodes that are very iconic or memorable to me. I wouldn’t say that Season 2 is the best season of the show; in fact, most Simpson fans consider Season 2 to be the bronze age of the series (episodes that are indisputably good, but not amazing). Season 2 is probably the most nostalgic for me though as I’ve seen a lot of these episodes a number of times and could more than likely identify most of these episodes from a still image alone if provided to me. I have a lot of fond memories of this season and I very much look forward to re-examining the era and seeing how these episodes still hold up today.

We start our journey with Episode #14, “Bart Gets an ‘F.’” This episode debuted on October 11th, 1990 and although it was the first episode that aired for Season 2, it was actually the third episode that was produced. The reason for this is because of the popularity of the Bart Simpson character, the producers wanted to air this episode first because it was a Bart-centric episode and a good way to bring an audience in for the second season premiere. This was especially important because at the time, The Simpsons had started airing during the 8:00 PM time slot on Thursdays, which was directly competing against The Cosby Show on NBC; a show that was known for its very high ratings. Despite this, The Simpsons and this episode performed very well at this new time slot and actually managed to be the number one most viewed show of that particular week. In fact, it was the most viewed program in the history of the Fox network at that time, giving the episode and the show some nice accolades moving forward.

This is also the first episode to use the second iteration of The Simpsons opening sequence; the one that is perhaps most known, just due to the fact that was used from Season 2 through Season 20 of the entire show’s lifespan. For the most part, the sequence is very similar to the first sequence, but with the animation cleaned up in a few places and some of the extra gags removed to allow a bit more extra episode time. The chalkboard gag for particular episode is “I Will Not Encourage Others to Fly,” sound advice, especially if you don’t want a share in any of those medical bills that the other family might spring on your parents. As for the couch gag, the Simpson family rushes into the room to sit on the couch, where everything seems to be fine and normal…before the couch crashes through the floor and an audible “D’oh!” can be heard from Homer as the family lands off camera.

Mrs. Krabappel: “Bart! You haven’t been paying attention to a word I said, have you?”
Bart: “Yes, ma’am!”
Mrs. Krabappel: “Well, then what did I say?”
Bart: “Uhh…straighten up and fly right?”
Mrs. Krabappel: “Pah! That was a lucky guess!”

Plot:
This episode opens at Springfield Elementary in Mrs. Krabappel’s class. Her students are giving book reports and after numerous interruptions and wise cracks by Bart Simpson, it is time for him to give his book report on “Treasure Island.” Bart clearly has not read the book and throughout his 25-second presentation manages to just read and describe the book’s cover. Mrs. Krabappel is not pleased by Bart’s report and proves he did not read the book by asking one simple question; “What is the name of the pirate in the book?” which Bart erroneously answers “Bluebeard.” She fails his book report and asks him to stay after class. During Bart’s punishment, Mrs. Krabappel warns Bart that his continued failure will not look good on his permanent record and that a very important test on Colonial America is coming up the following day and that this could be his only chance to turn his progress around.

After school, Bart spends the rest of the day at the arcade, and then at home watching television. By the time he finally makes it back to his room to study, he is too tired and ends up falling asleep at his desk. The next morning, he tries to get study notes from Sherri and Terri, but they are wise to Bart’s plans and end up giving him false information instead. Martin warns Bart that the information he was given was falsified, so instead of taking the test and failing, Bart fakes an illness and gets sent home instead. With one more day of preparation left, Bart tries one last scheme in order to cheat his way through the exam by calling Milhouse and asking for all the test answers. With this information, Bart confidently goes to school the next day to take the test, just to find out that Milhouse also did badly and Bart has once again failed another exam.

Mrs. Krabappel and Dr. Pryor, the school psychologist, meet with Homer and Marge to discuss Bart’s problems at school. Dr. Pryor suggests that Bart, due to his poor performance, is an underachiever and as a result should repeat the 4th grade. Marge and Homer also sympathize with the idea, but Bart is not happy with the prospect. He asks for one more chance to prove that he can do better, but the four adults in the room are not really convinced by his words. Bart spends the next day worrying that his nightmare of having to repeat the 4th grade may actually come true. Realizing that he will really need to turn things around, Bart goes to Martin, the class nerd, for help on studying for the next exam. He shows Martin that he is not very popular with all the other kids in school and that is overachieving ways are the reason for that. Because of this, Bart makes a deal with him that if Martin tries to help him study for the next exam, Bart will show him how to become more popular at school. Martin learns a lot from Bart and starts acting up and playing pranks on all the other kids. In fact, Bart’s plan works out so well that Martin no longer wants to be an overachiever and instead of helping Bart study for the next exam, he wants to go to the arcade with his new friends, leaving Bart to study for his test, once again, all alone.

Bart, feeling hopeless that his efforts have once again not given him success, resorts in a prayer to God; asking for one more day to study for the upcoming test. Overnight, a surprise blizzard hits Springfield, cancelling all classes for the day and answering Bart’s prayers. As he’s about to go outside to play in the snow, Lisa stops him and reminds Bart that he prayed for this and he shouldn’t waste this opportunity. Realizing that he owes God for this miracle, Bart finally decides to hit the books and study for the test. However, this proves difficult as the fun and merriment that everyone in town is experiencing starts to become a distraction for Bart, and he can’t seem to focus or really soak in any of what he’s trying to study.

The next day comes quickly, too quickly, as the episode cuts from Bart struggling to study to the very end of the test-taking period the next day. Mrs. Krabappel asks for Bart’s test and proceeds to grade it right in front of him. After grading, Mrs. Krabappel reveals that Bart had scored a 59/100, exactly one point away from passing the test. All of Bart’s efforts come crashing down on him when he realizes that even after trying his hardest and doing everything he could to pass this one exam, he still failed and will now have to repeat the 4th grade. Bart starts to cry and Mrs. Krabappel, surprised due to thinking Bart was used to failing at this point, tries to comfort Bart with the justification that it was at least a “high-F,” but Bart is still crushed beyond belief. In a moment of defeat, he mentions that he feels like what George Washington must have felt like when he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in 1754. This gets Mrs. Krabappel’s attention when she realizes that Bart has displayed an application of knowledge from the very same material he was studying for. Because of this display, she changes Bart’s grade to a 60/100, allowing him to pass his very first exam. Enthusiastic for this victory, Bart kisses Mrs. Krabappel and leaves the school celebrating his achievement and shouting to the entire world that he passed his exam. Proudly, his family displays his test on the refrigerator, with Bart claiming “a part of this D-minus belongs to God.”

Bart: “What was the name of the Pilgrims’ boat?”
Sherry: “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
Bart: “And where’d they land?”
Terry: “Sunny Acapulco.”
Bart: “And why’d they leave England?”
Sherry: “Giant rats.”
Bart: “Cool! History’s coming alive!”

Personal History:
I never saw this episode as early as I saw many of the Season 2 episodes, but it was still an episode I got to watch eventually through re-runs and other means. It’s a very standard, almost cliché episode, and one I could recognize as a trope from a variety of different television shows (cartoon or not). “Main character has trouble in school, big exam is coming up, character tries to avoid the exam, stuff happens to prolong the resolution…” it’s a formula that’s easy to use and recognize just because I’m sure anybody who has gone to school, and has had some experience with public school education like I have, has had that fear at one point or another. It’s that fear of doing bad in school could lead to undesirable circumstances outside, whether it was getting in trouble by the parents, or in more severe cases like Bart in this episode, having to repeat a grade over again. So in a way, it was an episode I saw at one point and was almost surprised I hadn’t seen it until then. I also find that my point of view towards this episode has changed in a lot of respects as well, but I’ll get into that in a bit when we get to the review portion of this write-up.

Bart: “As God as my witness, I can pass the 4th grade!”
Homer: “And if you don’t, at least you’ll be bigger than the other kids.”

Favorite/Memorable Moments:
This episode actually had a lot of different things I wanted to point out, but I feel like a great majority of that will be talked about in the review portion so I’ll try to focus on just the highlights here. In regards to this particular episode, I separate the memorable moments into two separate categories; entertainment and emotional. On the entertainment side, we have Bart acting pretty much as he normally does. He’s a prankster. He doesn’t really care about school, his grades, or doing the right thing unless it really starts to have a negative effect on him. Because of this, you really start to see a really high level of confidence in Bart’s character. This confidence can be written off as arrogance, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t entertaining. Watching as Bart really tries to wing it through his book report, when it’s so clearly obvious he hasn’t read a single page of it, is kind of endearing when you really think about it. Also, just the fact that he landed on “Bluebeard” as the name for the pirate in the book was just the perfect way to end that scene. The first act is full of this routine as Bart continuously tries to find ways to get out of his predicament, just to be continually met with some kind of wall or obstacle that prevents him from being successful. However, as I said, it’s still very entertaining and endearing to watch him try.

During the next act, when we (and Bart for that matter) are finally introduced to the main conflict, that’s when the episode takes a bit of a turn, but not necessarily in a bad way. This is when the episode starts focusing on the emotionally-driven plot elements. In these moments, we watch as Bart tries really hard to get on the right track by actually using methods that are not entirely dishonest. He tries to help Martin fit in more at school under the notion that Martin will help him study, and when Bart’s prayer to God yields him another chance, he really tries to use that time effectively as God pretty much delivered him a miracle when has had so many chances already. This was when I, as a viewer, really started to root for Bart for doing the right thing and started hoping that he would have a positive resolution to the conflict at hand. And the ending…well, I’ll get back to that in just a minute.

Before I get into the ending, I want to cover a few of the highlights I experienced as far as jokes are concerned. One of my favorite early jokes is when Mrs. Krapabbel is talking to Bart about his failures and trying to warn him that there might be consequences to his continued underachieving. During this exchange, Bart starts to lose his focus and starts hearing his teacher’s words as “Blah blah blahs.” After he has clearly zoned out, Ms. Krabappel calls him out on it and Bart lies and reassures her that he was paying attention. When asked what she said to him, Bart answers “I need to straighten up and fly right?” Mrs. Krabappel sighs in disbelief and responds, “Oh, that was a lucky guess!” It’s just proof that Bart has more than likely heard those words before and is probably used to hearing this discussion already, but the delivery in this case was just brilliant. On the subject of hearing the teacher’s words as “Blah blah blahs,” it’s also pretty humorous to see Homer go through the same thing with Dr. Pryor during the parent conference, showing that both father and son aren’t too different when you really break them down. Also in regards to Homer, when Bart states his ultimatum to do better and pass the 4th grade, hearing Homer state, “and if you don’t, at least you will be bigger than the other kids,” is also a pretty humorous gag, despite the blunt implication of how much it shows Homer doesn’t really believe in his son and how he’s already trying to look at the positives of Bart being held back a year. And finally, I don’t know why this gag always seems to pop in my memory whenever I think about this episode, but when Bart is trying to study and he starts trying to envision himself at the first continental congress in order to soak up the information; just the idea that all the congressmen run outside to play in a snowstorm while Bart just sits there empty-handed and dumbfounded, hearing the phrase “Hey everybody, John Hancock is writing his name in the snow,” just always seems to catch me off guard with how incredibly out there and mature it is. Every time I hear it though, I can’t stop laughing.

Best moment of the episode though? I have to give it to the ending scenes. There’s just something incredible with how this story wraps up. It takes everything you know and would have learned about happy endings, throws it all out the window by saying, “Nope, too bad, the character failed,” forcing you to sympathize with the character because of what you saw them try to accomplish, and then, almost out of nowhere, the character catches a break and earns that happy ending in a way you were probably not expecting. It’s brilliant, it’s creative…it’s a good way to the end this particular episode. I also quite enjoyed Bart’s celebration as he ran through the school shouting out his victory, just to realize at the very end as he left the school property that he had committed the almighty sin of kissing his teacher in the process, gagging at the very thought of it. It was just a really nice and light-hearted way of ending the episode.

Homer: “We’re proud of you, boy!”
Bart: “Thanks Dad. But part of this D-minus belongs to God.”

My Review:
I’m going to keep it real with you guys; if you asked me a couple of years ago about how I felt about this episode, you probably wouldn’t get too great of a response from me. It’s not that I hated this episode, it’s just that it still felt like a Season 1 episode to me. It was very basic, had an extremely cliché plot, not a lot of jokes or gags, and if anything, just seemed like a continuation of the obvious elephant in the room; Bart’s not that great of a student at school…what else is new? In fact, when I first watched this episode on my Season 2 DVD all those years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that both Season 1 and Season 2 started with a “Bart at school” episode. They both went in different directions, for sure, but still, I found it interesting how that was their immediate go-to for an episode plot. So in a way, I always kind of thought of this episode as a continuation or sequel to “Bart the Genius;” not a true one, mind you, but still kind of similar in its tone.

I will say now though that I no longer think of this episode as such. If anything, I’d say that this is not only a huge improvement over “Bart the Genius,” but I’d almost go as far as to say that this episode is probably indicative to why The Simpsons is such an amazing television show. I think it takes everything you would come to assume about most cartoons and animated shows, from Looney Toons, Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, and etc., and pushes the boundaries to make the show feel on another level. The Simpsons takes those worlds of fiction and expands on them with doses of non-fiction and realism. I repeat, this is a universe of yellow-skinned humans and they are dealing with the problems of a 10-year-old kid struggling to make good grades in school. That’s the premise we are dealing with here, but you know what, it works and it works well.

Something I really took notice of during this watch was that as the episode was progressing, the tone of the episode perfectly matched what Bart was going through at that exact point in the narrative. At the beginning, when Bart was numb to his failures, he’s cracking jokes, giving non-serious answers to his teacher…really just being the mischievous kid he is known to be. He shrugs off studying because, “I have time later, I can make it work,” but the reality is that he doesn’t and he’s only hurting himself by procrastinating. That is so real to how us, as humans, can be sometimes. When we get attention, regardless of whether it is good or bad, we act on it because it puts us in a spotlight and in a place where we are being noticed. Bart is the same exact way; he knows he is the class clown, entertainer, etc. so he doesn’t put much value into studying because he gets the attention he wants and thrives on. At the same time, he also doesn’t want to get in trouble either, so he does what he can to cover his tracks or make light of the situation. Whether it’s faking his entire book report, or trying to fish out all of the answers to the test without actually having to study, he’s trying to avoid doing something that he doesn’t think he has to do because he knows the alternative will suck away too much of his time, or will just be too hard to do in general.

Then later in the episode, when he’s come to the realization of his dilemma, you start to feel the weight and burden on his shoulders. You start having flashbacks to when you were a kid and imagined all of those times when you feared that you hadn’t studied well enough, or even studied at all. I think the episode did a great job of breaking down Bart’s character and putting him in a very “real” type of situation here, one that perfectly complements the type of mischief that put him in this type of situation to begin with. He knows that if he fails and has to repeat the 4th grade, he’s not going to be known as the class-clown or the really cool, fun kid; he’ll be considered the really stupid kid who had to retake an entire year of elementary school over again. That’s a title he doesn’t want to have and you really start to feel his call to action at the end of the first act.

That’s when Bart’s actions start to become more sincere. He makes a deal with Martin to help each other out, and then when given one final chance by God, Bart finally puts his nose to the grindstone and gets to work. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch as Bart’s final attempts come up fruitless as Martin breaks his word and becomes a prankster, and the studying Bart is trying to do just isn’t sticking with him. You could say his attempts were a bit greedy, or even selfish, as he had more than enough time to fix his habits on his own merits, but to me, they came across as being really human. When you are in desperation, you will do anything to make sure something gets done. Hell, I couldn’t tell you how many times I pulled all-nighters in college to get projects done because I wanted to make sure everything I turned in was done and done right. Even if I knew a 100% was out of my reach, I didn’t step away from the assignment until I knew I at least had the next best thing. That very same thing happened to Bart in this episode. He knew that he would only get distracted if he tried studying by himself, so he reached out to others, and then when all other attempts were fruitless and he realized he had to do it by himself, he distanced himself from all the distractions and still gave it an honest try, something I think we can commend him for.

Then, at the very end when Bart came so close to passing his exam, just to end up failing, it’s so sweet to watch even Mrs. Krabappel start to warm-up to Bart as she sees all the work he has done and tried to do. And then when Bart applies knowledge from his studies to the situation he is in, you can almost feel what his teacher is feeling; that feeling of being shocked, almost impressed, that the student who was so prone to failure, actually learned something admirable. That’s why she ended up rewarding him for his efforts and I really like that as a resolution to this story. I think if somehow Bart was able to push it over the edge and get a B or even a C on the exam, I don’t think the ending would have had the same type of impact, so it was smart of the writers to put Bart on that edge of success and failure here, just to lead to stronger reaction.

Even with all that I’ve said here, I realize there are still a lot of questions to be had. Most importantly, how can Bart be so satisfied with a 60% score on his test when his test averages are still way below the “passing” threshold? Aren’t his grades still in jeopardy? How does this problem never come up again if Bart really is such an underachiever? Also, how did Martin revert back into his nerdy ways after becoming a troublemaker in this episode? This is where I think the show can abandon a little bit of that realism in favor of the status quo and get away with it. For this episode, Bart’s character doesn’t really change; this was a learning experience, not a character-changing one. He’s still an underachiever and not a very good school student, but I think his ultimate goal wasn’t to become a good student and pass the 4th grade, it was to prove to his parents and teachers that he COULD do it and apply himself. No one was expecting him to pass the next exam, but he did it and proved them all wrong, and as small of a victory as that might seem, I think it’s still a victory he can be proud of. This episode was about achieving that little victory; that small window of success that seemed unobtainable for Bart Simpson, and because he gave it his best shot, he earned that win and that is something I can be proud of him for. As far as the other things, like Martin’s reversion back into the nerd character or the future of Bart’s grades, I just don’t think they are important in the scope of this episode’s resolution and because of that, there was no need or reason to examine those points further.

I apologize for the really long synopsis here, but I did want to make sure I talked about all of this stuff, especially in my first episode back into this series. I’ll try to wrap it up quickly here, but there is one more thing I wanted to call attention to. Admittedly, I did have a bit of inspiration for why I had so much to say about this episode, and for that, I thank/blame the Nostalgia Critic. A couple of years back, I watched his “Top 11 episodes of The Simpsons” video, and this was actually the episode he picked as his #1 best episode. When I saw this selection, I was really surprised, just because I always saw this episode as a good episode, but never an amazing episode, and let me just say, there are many episodes I would consider to be amazing. However, after listening to his words, I actually kind of see what he was talking about and where we was coming from with his selection. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is the best episode for me, but it’s got a nice story to tell and actually shows a really good side to Bart Simpson and his character. He’s not just the trouble-making, no-goodnik that he proudly identifies himself as. He’s just a kid just like any other and he’s trying to make it through this world he still doesn’t quite understand and trying to find his way by his own means and merits, and I think that is a trait anyone can identify with, whether you are kid, or even an adult to some extent.

This is an episode I definitely recommend watching at least once. It may not be the most entertaining episode, but it’s got some great messages and some good memorable and classic moments. We still have twenty-one other episodes of Season 2 to get through, so I’m not sure if I would consider this to be the absolute best just yet (there is definitely an episode late in this season that is widely considered to be one of the best episodes of all-time), but let me just say, this was a great way to start and I look forward to really getting back into this series.

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Ok guys, that is going to do it for the first episode of Season 2, and let me just say, I was NOT expecting this one to be as long as it was. I think because this was the first episode back after a year, it was a bit longer to compensate for my absence; not to mention, as I said earlier in the review, this is where the series does start to enter what is known as the “Bronze Age” of the show, so there is definitely more to analyze as I start to see patterns of how this show really start to took off in television media. I’ll try to be a bit more concise with my explanations in the future, just so you guys aren’t reading a novel every week, but understand that if there is an episode I take notice of and feel like talking about, I could be talking for a very long time, just because of how much this shows means to me and in general, I may just have a lot to say on the episode in question (like in the case of this episode). Next week, I will be taking a look at Episode 2 of Season 2; “Simpson and Delilah.”

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